We (like almost everyone else) failed to get a reservation for the last season at El Bulli. But during our trip we have felt many connections to this giant of a restaurant. In Figueres, the birth- and resting-place of Dali we were both geographically and spiritually close. South in Girona, Wednesday’s dinner at El Celler De Can Roca had clear El Bulli influences – an amuse of anchovy skeletons apparently bonded to a quaver and a bonsai olive tree with tuggable caramelised olives both felt touched by Ferran. In fact this mad little corner of Catalonia seems to encourage mad and crazy ventures.
We got closer still to Ferran Adria by securing an early booking at “Tickets“. This is a terrible name for a restaurant, being virtually impenetrable by Google. It is located in the Paral-el, a residential district in Barcelona. The idea as I understood it was to combine “greatest hits” El Bulli dishes with a classic tapas bar.
The entrance is guarded by an Harpo Marx lookalike in what can only be described as “circus bellboy” outfit who, after mild persuasion, parted the velvet rope to let us in – since we were on the list and all. To the left of the entrance is a kind of ‘holding station’; empty when we arrived but as we were leaving, filled with classic Catalonians decked out in shades of brown and beige. The restaurant has several different areas, a clean white/green/pink region; a Bordello coloured bar, a dessert showcase, kitsch and pretty; there is more than a shade of the burlesque here.
It being 7pm we were one of the first seated, most Catalonians still digesting their lunch at this stage.
You are handed a piece of folded ochre coloured A3 paper – like a map – which contains several thematically divided menus, and were seated at one of the stationsmock cast iron chairs painted pink and white only added to the circus appearance; our table was a long white eccentrically shaped melamine bar showing influences of that other great local hero, Gaudi. Fortunately we were facing the seafood bar which gave us a very good view of proceedings, the chefs seriously engaged in the tiny delicacies they were creating. Every item weighed, sized, contemplated with intensity. An expeditor at the end of the bar kept a controlling eye on the madness that ensues when you have around 100 people ordering different tiny items at random intervals.
The whole menu is tapas and quite reasonably priced. A glass of cava is 6 euro and Lustau manzanilla (same stuff as the Waitrose own-brand dontchaknow) is 4 euro.
We ordered Cava and our first salvo of dishes …
Olives were presented in a Kilner jar and served on individual spoons. Hannah couldn’t understand why they wobbled so much until I pointed out they weren’t actually olives but the famous “spherical green olive” served at El Bulli. Olive puree is held together by sodium alignate. When popped in your mouth the briney liquid has all the flavour of an actual olive and bursts with a freshness and total olive flavour that you feel would be impossible to replicate.
Our Spanish is bad and our Catalan is worse but even so it was easy to order “Miniairbags”. A dish of pillowy ultra crisp shells were filled with olive oil and topped with the thinnest slices of cured iberico ham fat. The fat when held in the mouth simply vanished. Wowsers.
Four meaty cantabrian anchovies tasted of fish and were enhanced by the strange metal tweezers used to eat them. We had this with some completely traditional but delicious Catalonian pan con tomate which had been griddled. Not, of course, the thick baguette style bread usually used for this dish, but an incredibly light bubbly, crispy shell of thin dough dotted with vibrantly red tomato.
Relaxed now. Round two …
Tuna belly with sea urchin and “apple air bread”. The theatre here was provided by a polystyrene box containing the lightest meringues – the air bread. The box was to protect the meringues from the humidity. You load the meringue with tuna and sea urchin and let it all fall away in your mouth. Sweetness from the meringue and tuna, tartness from the apple and the massive “wave in the face” from sea urchin.
We both agreed that “peas from Meresne” would have to be some pretty bloody amazing peas at 16.50 Euro. Predictably these were some pretty bloody amazing peas. A nod to seasonality the waiter told us these are at their peak right now. This dish was served in a plastic bag bulging with steam. A snip to the top and pea aroma wafts everywhere. Every pea was sweeter than the sweetest pea you’ve ever tried. The preparation is simple; sofrito, stock, pork fat, peas and 2 minutes of boiling.
Getting into our stride now ..
Smoked artichokes “with cured ham’s powder” had to be tried. Arriving in a beautifully crafted artichoke shaped ceramicdish, a waft of smoke and the faintest hint of smoke in the artichokes offset the salty ham perfectly. The artichokes themselves were firm and meaty, no flab here.
Star dish of the evening was “Rabbit ribs with sparking garlic mayonnaise sauce”. In reality these were deep-fried rabbit rib portions in the most glorious greaseless batter, served with a whipped alioli. I couldn’t stop shoving these into my mouth. Tiny little rabbit bones remained.
Time for dessert?
An iced orange, filled with anisette-flavoured orange sorbet, mint and chunks of orange was a nice palette cleanser.
A tree of cotton candy, each bundle flavoured differently. Yes, a tree. Branches on which sat little clouds of candy floss, some decorated with mint leaves, others with sprinkles of orange or pink powder (flavoured although I can’t say with what). The most fun you can have with an old branch and some sugar.
Two scoops of helados; cinnamon (called here Canilla and resulting in a strange pantomine description by the waiter) for her and chocolate for me. These arrived in a traditional ice cream trolley complete with bell – rung by the waiter as he drives it through the restaurant. I don’t think our waiter was particularly impressed by having to do this.
A glass of Pedro Ximenez. For Hannah, the Angeles de Amaren, a fresh but powerful Rioja.
The damage; 150 euros. A bargain for several hours of surprise and delight, and just great tasting food.
Hannah told the waiter she wanted to work here, wheeling round the helados cart and ringing the bell. He said she was welcome to his job.